The Empty Tomb

The Empty Tomb

The four books of the Bible known as the Gospels, which means good news, are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of the writers were tasked by God to give an account of the events that have been fulfilled through Jesus Christ, which are certainly good news!

Some of the miracle stories are told in multiple Gospels, while some are unique to just one. However, each writer does give an account of the last week of Jesus’ life, what we know of now as Holy Week. In fact, each one goes into great detail and uses at least a quarter to almost half of their writings to tell of just this one week.

From Palm Sunday to Easter with the Last Supper and Death of Jesus as important stops along with way, Holy Week is a journey that encompasses a full range of emotions. With so much detail, so much that happened, it is only right that we take time to read from beginning to end taking significant time to spend at the table with Jesus, at the cross with the disciples (mostly the women who followed Jesus and were not afraid to be there), then to the borrowed tomb where they laid Jesus’ body. All of these are critical parts of the narrative so that the power of God can be shown without any doubt on Resurrection Sunday.

Each writer tells the story in his own unique way. But by comparing their versions to one another, we can discover how each Gospel writer answers the question, “In a world of uncertainty, how can we be sure that the Resurrection is real?”

Because let’s face it, the idea of a physical resurrection of a dead person back to life seems like an unreasonable claim to make. That just doesn’t happen every day. Yes, Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus, but here Jesus is raising Himself from the dead. Lazarus was hard enough to comprehend. He walked out of the tomb with cloth still wrapped around his body and head like a mummy in a horror film.

Many are far too skeptical to really believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. But as people of faith, we believe not only that the Resurrection happened, but also that it is the central aspect of our Christian conviction. Without the Resurrection, there would be no Christianity.

Maybe you have a little skepticism and even find it hard to believe. So how do we get past that and find a way to claim that the Resurrection is real? How do we claim it so we can tell others about it? It starts by reading the Gospel accounts and looking at how each writer answers that question, “How can we be sure that the Resurrection is real?” There we not only find a way to believe that the Resurrection is real, but we also discover that the power of the Resurrection is still at work today.

Today, we’ll take only a brief look the four Gospels in aim to prove that the Resurrection did really happen, but I encourage you to read the accounts for yourself in greater detail. Let’s start with Matthew.

Matthew 28:1-7
Early on Sunday morning, as the new day was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went out to visit the tomb. 2 Suddenly there was a great earthquake! For an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled aside the stone, and sat on it. 3 His face shone like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow. 4 The guards shook with fear when they saw him, and they fell into a dead faint.

5 Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. Come, see where his body was lying. 7 And now, go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there. Remember what I have told you.”

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary knew what had happened to Jesus as they watched Him die on the cross. A little more than 36 hours had passed since He died on that cross and was buried, so the news was still fresh in their minds. There would be no possible way for them to expect the events that greeted them when they arrived at the tomb.

An earthquake, an angel glimmering like lightning and white as snow descending from heaven. The giant stone rolled way. They were firsthand eyewitnesses to the greatest miracle in human history. They were the first to see the empty tomb and hear the good news. Death had been defeated, despair turned into glory.

However, notice that even though the women had a firsthand account, they were not yet living into the good news. We know this because the angel had to tell them not to be afraid and not to dwell too much on what this all meant.

The angel recognizes their fear, their anxiety, and acknowledges the fact that they don’t understand yet what all this means. He then tells them, simply and directly, that Jesus has been raised from the dead. He doesn’t even attempt to explain how the Resurrection happened. No word about how a body that had been dead for 36 hours could come back to life, how a brainwave that had gone flat, a heartbeat that stopped could be jump-started again.

The angel chooses to say nothing about how the Resurrection happened, but instead just tells them as clearly as possible that it did, and then he invites them to go meet the resurrected Jesus. We can easily get so caught up with more bad news than we can handle that we might not know what good news looks like, even if we witness it firsthand. The reality is, God is resurrecting dead things to life all the time, all around us. Yet we are so locked in on our fears and anxieties that we miss it. The angel tells the women, “Look, don’t just stand there trying to figure out what to make of this good news. If you do, you’re going to miss it, and you won’t understand it anyways. Instead get up, get moving, and see Jesus for yourself.

Matthew’s advice is to be active.
If you’re struggling in your prayer life, with doubts about whether it is effective or not, keep praying until you can believe it.
If you have a strained relationship with your Bible, wrestling over its words and even struggling to read it all, then keep on reading it every day because the Holy Spirit will guide you until you can believe it.
If you’ve had a bittersweet relationship with the church, or have been betrayed by the Christian community and are reluctant to make church participation a part of your life, then keep on showing up regularly until you can believe it.
If you’re not in a place in your life where you can believe in the Resurrection, then start practicing it until you can believe. In other words, live a life that counts on the Resurrection until you can believe it for yourself.

That’s exactly what the angel told the women to do. Go to Galilee. You may still have your doubts and be afraid (who can blame them), but God is calling you to do something about it. Get active in your faith. Go meet this resurrected Jesus.

Mark 16:1-8
Matthew and Marks accounts are very similar, but there are differences. For one, there’s a third women in Mark, and no one sees the stone roll away. You could read Matthew’s account as if the women saw the stone actually roll away, but it could also be that Matthew records what the women realized happened once they arrived. Either way, Mark describes the stone as already moved when the women arrived, like it’s a past tense event (take note of this).

And here’s something else. Matthew and John each record a meeting between the women and Jesus. It happens shortly after they’ve been told about the Resurrection. The most famous account of this is when Mary Magdalene meets Jesus at the tomb and thinks He’s the gardener. But nothing like this happens in Mark’s Gospel.

What we must know and remember is that the main purpose of the Gospel writers was to give an accurate record of Jesus’ message, not to present an exact chronological account of His life. The accounts are also clearly written from different perspectives, and since Matthew and Mark weren’t at the tomb with the women, they are taking the perspectives of the women. There are places in the Gospels that the writers place certain accounts near others to show particular points of Jesus’ messages.
For instance, in Mark’s Gospel, the implication is that Jesus has gone ahead of the women, and they are to continue moving forward in order to meet Him. Mark 16:5-7 the angel says, “Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.”

In other words, God’s power and presence had preceded the women in the act of resurrecting Christ (the stone has already been rolled away) and had also gone before them to Galilee.

In one moment in time, at a place where the women came expecting to find death and despair, they came to realize that not only was God with them in the present moment, God was working clearly in their past and already preparing their future.

The power of the resurrection through Christ is the power to redeem the haunting guilt and shame of our yesterday’s, the ongoing sufferings and despair of today, and the anxieties and worries of tomorrow. Doesn’t this sound like John Wesley’s understanding of grace?

Prevenient Grace: Grace that goes before, is ours before we even know it exists. God has worked in our past in ways that we are not fully aware of, luring us into a relationship with Him, injecting our lives with little glimpses of grace. There have been unexpected moments when God has spoke to us, loved us, and cared for us. In a sense, rolling away the stone even before we realized it. That’s prevenient grace.

Justifying Grace: God is also working in our present. The power of the Resurrection leads us to utter humility and obedience to God to the point where we are left with no response but to surrender ourselves wholly to the one who raised Jesus from the dead. We experience new life. This is the justifying, saving grace of God. It’s when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

Sanctifying Grace: God is also working on our future. God is molding you, shaping you, and preparing you for the destiny He desires for you. God will journey with you into the unknowns of tomorrow, showing you how your gifts and abilities will contribute to the wider plan of God’s kingdom. His resurrection guarantees our future security. This is the sanctifying grace of God, a grace that continues to nurture and grow you.

John Wesley believed that the grace of God comes before us, goes before us, and lives with us still. That’s what the women at the tomb experienced firsthand. The resurrection had happened, God was with them in that moment, and the resurrected Christ awaited them.

Luke 24:1-12
Much of the opening of Luke’s Easter story resonates with the other Gospels. The women show up to do their job and their due diligence, to prepare the body of Jesus with spices. When they arrive at the tomb, the stone is rolled away and two brightly dressed men were standing there to tell them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raise.” Luke 24:5-6

Like in the other Gospels, the women react with understandable fear. And just when you are about to chalk up Luke’s Easter story is identical to the others, Luke offers the first unique curveball to his version. The messengers tell the women:

Luke 24:6-7
6 He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Remember what he told you back in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and that he would rise again on the third day.”

Yes, the women were afraid and perplexed, but according to Luke, do you know what their real problem was? The women were forgetful. They and the other disciples should have remembered what Jesus had been telling them along. All that they ever needed to know to make sense of this moment and to face it with courage had already been told to them. They just hadn’t pulled it all together yet.

Embracing the uncertainty of life and accepting the Resurrection means we have to remember. Remember that God has been working in you, whether you realize it or not, and has already given you everything you need to embrace new life.

Luke’s message is inviting you to think back through some of the most significant moments of your life and remember.
Do you remember what baptism means? That in your baptism God claimed you and welcomed you as His own child and was well pleased with you.
Do you remember times in your life when you felt like there was something out there in the universe bigger than your own existence?
Do you remember those moments when all seemed hopeless, and you could feel the tug of a guiding hand that would not let you give up?

God’s grace has been at work in your entire life, and at this very moment, the Easter story is giving you this key to new life. Remember who God is. Remember you are God’s child. And remember what you already know about how you are to live.

Now that ought to be the end of the story right there. Luke has already given us the big reveal. Except Luke isn’t done. For some reason, he has one more thing to say. The other Gospels reveal the names of the women at the beginning of their accounts, but Luke waits until after the women have already heard the good news of the Resurrection and have gone to report it to the eleven disciples.

Luke 24:10
Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them.

Now to give you a little background on these first two women, Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and an object of public scorn, and Joanna was the wife of an employee of Herod, one of the villains in this story. These women had scandal in their past and baggage in their reputation. All reasons why no one should believe a word they had to say. And that’s exactly what happened when they told the disciples what they had seen and been told.

Luke 24:11
“Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women.”

Why? Not just because they were women in a patriarchal society and not just because the news was hard to believe. It was also because the disciples could not forget of all the baggage these women carried from their past. Ultimately, Luke’s Easter story is about competing memories. It’s about making a choice between which set of memories you will choose to claim today.

Will you choose to remember all the reasons why your life isn’t worthy of God’s love? All the shame and guilt from your past, all those ways in which you are underserving of resurrection? If so, then you’ll see the resurrection as nonsense, just like the disciples did.

Or will you choose to remember what God has been telling you all along? That you are a child of His and are worth it. Will you choose the memories of God’s love throughout your life? If so, then on this day your new life can start right here.

John 20:1-18
If you read John’s Gospel expecting to hear about the dramatic rising of Jesus with dazzling special affects – an earthquake, the shining angel – you won’t find it. Instead, John wants to build the suspense, almost like a good mystery movie. He doesn’t want to give away the ending until just the right moment.

He brings Mary Magdalene to the scene as the first surprised to find the tomb empty. She runs back and gets some backup, Peter and John, “the other disciple” who one by one slowly peak inside the tomb. John then peels back the layers of evidence, the stone was rolled away, the head linen was folded up separate from the others. Then just when you think he’ll announce the great news, he delays it even longer.

This Gospel story stands out to me in a way that feels more personal. It more about dialogue and relationships. There’s a tender quality to it. Mary who has just experience the death of her teacher and friend, is standing outside the tomb crying and comes to the conclusion that Jesus’ body was stolen. She then sees two angels inside the tomb, and they ask her why she’s crying. The previous accounts have the angels announcing the news, but still not yet in John.
Then what’s more, someone who looks like the gardener appears. He asks her the same question, “Dear woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Then listen to Mary’s response. “Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.” John 20:15

Here we are now fifteen verses into John’s Easter story, and still not a word about the Resurrection. And Mary, maybe just like you, is waiting. You may be waiting for God to puncture through your suffering, breaking in like an earthquake, displaying His power by rolling away the stones and speaking directly and clearly like the angel.

It was at that moment that Mary was at her lowest, and John says okay, its time. Time to reveal the climax, finally 16 verses into the story. The news doesn’t come with the sound of trumpets or an earthquake or angels. The news comes plainly, simply, tenderly from the mouth of Jesus – the gardener Himself.

“Mary.” He says her name. And when Mary heard her master utter her name, the fog lifted. Her eyes saw clearly. Jesus needed to say nothing more. She turned to Him and said rabbi, which means teacher. If you listen closely, the same God is whispering your name.

May you hear it with clarity and receive it with great joy. This same God who first uttered your name at the moment of your birth, who repeated your name at your baptism, this same God calls out your name right now with the confidence and the resurrection power. You no longer need to wait for your light to come. Your name is called! Your redeemer is here!

Each of the Gospel writers offer an answer to the uncertainty of God’s resurrection power.
In Matthew, the Resurrection is found when we choose to live it, practice it, and follow God until we can fully believe it.

In Mark, the evidence for the Resurrection is found in the way God has worked in your past before you even realized it, is working in you right now and in your future to make you more like Jesus.

In Luke, resurrection is found in remembrance, choosing to believe in God’s grace instead of the shame and guilt from your past.

And in John, resurrection is found in hearing God speak your name, and in realizing that God is always with you, despite all your uncertainties.

Each of the Easter stories in the Gospels, calls for our response to the resurrection of Jesus.